Reversing Paralysis: “Dancing Molecules” Can Fix Spinal Cord Injuries

The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center estimates that roughly 300,000 Americans today live with a spinal cord injury.

Following a novel treatment developed with the help of the Advanced Photon Source, paralyzed mice can now “walk” once again.

The Science Behind the Treatment

A new injectable treatment for spinal cord injury makes use of specially created molecules that prompt spinal cells to respond by healing. The scientists used X-ray characterization at the Advanced Photon Source (APS). This allowed the scientists to ascertain the structure of these molecules as they combined to create small fibers in a liquid solution.

These fibers’ motion may be controlled by scientists, making it possible for the fibers to interact with the spinal cells more effectively.

In a new injectable therapy that repairs spinal cord injuries, molecules form nanofibers that ‘dance’ around, making communication with cells to repair the injured spinal cord more likely. Credit: Northwestern University

The Treatment’s Impact

Every year, hundreds of thousands of individuals have spinal injuries that often result in paralysis. For many years, researchers have been looking for a cure for these injuries. With only one dosage, this new injectable treatment reversed paralysis in mice after four weeks.

If it works the same way in people, individuals with serious spinal injuries could have a chance to walk once again. The techniques and approaches to characterization with X-rays could also help develop other therapeutic approaches requiring insights into the molecular structure.


A paralyzed mouse (left) drags its hind legs, compared to a paralyzed mouse that has regained its ability to move its legs after receiving Northwestern’s injectable therapy. Credit: Samuel I. Stupp Laboratory/Northwestern University

Summary

A critical portion of this research into a novel treatment for spinal injuries was conducted at the APS, a Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science user facility at Argonne National Laboratory. There, scientists from Northwestern University and the Air Force Research Laboratories used ultrabright X-ray beams to study the structure of the engineered molecules and how they behaved together in a solution.

Injected as a liquid, the molecules came together to form tiny fiber structures (called nanofibers) that surrounded the spinal cord.


A simple animation shows how a single injection restores connections in the nervous system below the site of a severe spinal cord injury. Credit: Samuel I. Stupp Laboratory/Mark Seniw/Northwestern University

In the APS studies, the researchers discovered that the motion of molecules within the nanofibers could be controlled by changing their chemical structure. It turned out that molecules that moved most —“danced” more — were more likely to signal spinal cells via proteins called receptors, resulting in a more effective treatment.

Knowing the structure of the molecular matrix allowed researchers to tune the motion of the molecules. By making the molecules “dance,” they were more likely to find and engage cellular receptors, triggering the cells to repair damaged neurons.

Reference: “Bioactive scaffolds with enhanced supramolecular motion promote recovery from spinal cord injury” by Z. Álvarez, A. N. Kolberg-Edelbrock, I. R. Sasselli, J. A. Ortega, R. Qiu, Z. Syrgiannis, P. A. Mirau, F. Chen, S. M. Chin, S. Weigand, E. Kiskinis and S. I. Stupp, 11 November 2021, Science.
DOI: 10.1126/science.abh3602

The study was funded by the Air Force Research Laboratory, the NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the NIH/National Institute on Aging, the Les Turner ALS Foundation, the New York Stem Cell Foundation, the Paralyzed Veterans of America Research Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the French Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Advanced Photon SourceArgonne National LaboratoryDOENorthwestern UniversityPopularRegenerative BiologySpinal Cord
Comments ( 11 )
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  • Billy Jamison

    I suffered a spine injury when I was 18, 43 years ago I am now 61. I would love to be part of this research you could use me as a guinea pig. I have nothing to lose, C3/4 incomplete quad!

  • JJ

    Wow, great news. Brings a ray of hope to so many. To all involved in this research, please keep at it, and thanks for all your effort and dedication.

  • LH

    I am going into surgery soon for C 5/6, C6/7, would be interested to know if human studies have begun and what is needed to become a candidate?

  • emma

    Does this work for vertebrae breaks like Spondylolithesis?

  • Robert Bruno

    I’ve had 3 surgeries on my c-3 down to the T-1,just had decompression in May. My left leg is slow and lazy,very weak and no stability. Walking with severe limp 22yrs,I’m 55yrs old

  • Lauren Woodroof

    I’ve had a disc pop out in my L6 vertebrae in 2006. The cauda equina syndrome set in. If this can be reversed by the 1x treatment, I would gladly take it! Sell everything I own,or use me to test I out, whatever!

  • Jared Alton

    I absolutely will volunteer myself and my dead leg for human trials. Or tell me how much this treatment cost and I’ll come up with the money. My injury at the L3 occurred about 5 years ago and I’m willing to try just about anything.

  • Justin Güttler

    Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren,
    Ich schreibe im Namen meines Vaters. Er hatte vor 4 Jahren einen schweren Unfall und ist nun ab dem 3/4 Halswirbel Querschnittsgelähmt.
    Ich versuche alles mir menschen mögliche um meinen Vater zu unterstützen. Mein Vater hat sich schon für das Gemini Projekt beworben, wo jedoch keinerlei Interesse gezeigt wird. Nun frage ich sie, ob Sie meinem Vater die Möglichkeiten geben könnten an dieser Studie bzw einer Studie teilzunehmen um seine Lauffähigkeit/Fühlvermögen wiederherzustellen.
    Mit freundlichen Grüßen
    Justin Güttler

  • Benita Yirenkyi

    Suffered a gunshot in 2015 in the chest and have been paralysed till now.This is indeed a ray of hope to us enduring paralysis.I know getting this treatment would be expensive looking at how living with paralysis is but please make this open to all(both those in US and around the world.We all need help because its not an easy situation to be in. I would be grateful if considered for this life changing opportunity. Its not easy living with disability.

  • Jonny

    I have an incomplete SCI th6. I’m 26 years old and got my life ruined because of this injury. My relationship and life crashed, can’t even play with my newborn son. I’m willing to pay whatever this costs. Would be great for me and for the others who suffer from this type of injury. Just contact me on my email

  • Javi

    I want to volunteer for this experiment. I suffer a th6 SCI (incomplete). I am 26 years old and lives in Sweden.
    Please update me on this. God bless y’all